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Science Council criticises ‘lenient’ marking

Germany’s chief policy advisory body on higher education issues, the Wissenschaftsrat (WR – Science and Humanities Council), has criticised grading practice at universities. While grade averages between universities or between subjects vary considerably, there is too little spread at institution level within individual subjects, the WR argues.

“The mark you get on graduating depends not only on examination attainment but also on what you are studying and where you are studying it,” said WR Chairman Wolfgang Marquardt. The council, whose membership comprises politicians and leading representatives of higher education, evaluated all available data on exam results at German universities in 2010.

The WR also noted that a trend towards better grades being awarded that it had already identified in previous years appeared to be confirmed by the 2010 results, especially in the bachelor programmes, where four out of five students were awarded ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ marks. For example, taking the results for the old Diplom degrees that are being phased out, 98% of graduates from biology had ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ marks in the survey, and so did 97% in psychology. By contrast, just 7% of law students attained these marks. In the corresponding new bachelor programmes, the figures were 84%, 95% and 37% respectively. Bachelor degrees accounted for just under a third of all successful exams in 2010.

Various reasons are given for the trend towards good marking at university level.

Assumptions that university lecturers might be awarding marks going beyond actual achievement to boost their popularity among students, and hence their own rating in mandatory evaluations, have been contested.

“We have examined this,” said Peter Gritzmann, a professor of mathematics at Munich’s University of Technology. “Some colleagues may award better marks on average than others, but they are not always the ones who are popular with students,” Gritzmann noted.

Commenting on marks in natural sciences and mathematics averaging between ‘excellent’ and ‘good’ in a cross-German comparison, Gritzmann maintained that in mathematics, for example, where there is a 70% dropout rate, those making it to the final exams “just happen to be very good at their subject”.

At Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University, there are just 150 available places in psychology for around 3,000 applicants. A successful application requires an average of school-leaving marks of 1.3 – almost 'excellent' on the German inverted 1 to 6 scale.

“That is why our students are usually very good right from the start,” argued psychology professor Felix Brodbeck.

The WR is generally critical of grade comparability nowadays. The considerable variation in marks depending on institutions and subjects severely weakens the meaningfulness of individual marks, the council argues. This is causing problems not only for employers but also for the universities themselves. Now that the new bachelor and masters programmes are becoming increasingly widespread, switching universities between a bachelor and masters is also becoming much more frequent. But admission to the advanced programme requires a certain grade level for the bachelor degree.

“Now, for the first time, institutions have to rely on exams marks that are comparable at a cross-institution level in selecting candidates for masters programmes,” Marquardt noted.

“Perhaps this will encourage a thorough reassessment of grading practice at institutions. The new report provides useful and relevant information in this respect.”

In the long run, grading standards will have to be developed that enable an extensive comparability of bachelor exam results, the WR argues. The data it has gathered offer a wide range of information broken down to subject and institution level, and the council maintains that this ought to provide a good basis for improvements. This should also have an impact on grade spread, where the WR notes that currently, “differentiation appears to be restricted largely to digits after the decimal point”.
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